The debate around free will has long captivated western culture. From a storyteller's point of view, a kind of romantic fatalism -- as a balance between choice and determinism -- seems to be favored. The idea that no matter how we go about things, no matter how or when or how many times we attempt it, the result is the same and predetermined by our character. It's a nice variation on predestination, which always seemed to make marionette dolls of us and, in the process, offer a kind of hollow absolution. By contrast, predetermination would have us struggle of our own free will, but somehow reach the same result anyway. It grants agency. It confirms identity through choice while offering the comforting surrender to "there's nothing we can do about it in the end." It's a perspective that wisely parallels life.
One thing I've been wondering about recently, though, is whether there exists a model for predeterminism that has less to do with fate and more to do with kinds of truth? If we could only see ourselves truthfully, would we perhaps understand better some of our choices and even choose differently? Truths can betray us, but they can also, like a stronger current beneath the surface, pull us towards our inevitable destination without our knowledge. In this model, then, it would be in recognizing truth that we have the power to change ourselves. I'm curious about this because then the responsibility of choice hinges upon observation.
I'm also curious, finally, about the relationship this brings up between character and action. I think where this becomes interesting from a psychological perspective, is when our motivations are complex and not obvious. For instance, when someone acts selfishly, we tend to assume that they are self-centered or only care about themselves. But perhaps that person was brought up with a strong sense of community and learned to make selfish choices because it was necessary as a way of asserting oneself in a community-centered environment. Similarly, when someone acts considerately, we tend to think of them as particularly empathetic or caring, but perhaps consideration -- outwardly directed sensitivity -- is an adaptive mechanism in people who are in fact more isolated and self-centered, as a way of connecting to those around them.
Tied up with both of these examples is, of course, the question of how well we know ourselves. On a given day, how capable is any one of us of distinguishing our behaviors from our character? And how deeply embedded is something like empathy or selfishness? Is it possible to be fundamentally empathetic or fundamentally selfish, and is that something determined by nature or nurture? Or are we all fundamentally one or the other? Various philosophers (Hobbes, Rousseau) address this question, which these days is perhaps better answered by neuroscientists. But perhaps none of these perspectives, philosophical or scientific, are as important as simply being able to ask, and try as best we can each day to answer, "What feels true to us?"
Recently I've become interested in compartments.
There are many types.
Some are imagined.
One fits a brain. One fits a heart.
One is larger than it seems. One seems tightly shut but is difficult to close again, like a ziplock bag filled with sand.
Compartments are easily generalized.
The general instance of a compartment, however, is different than, say, the general instance of a drawer.
When drawers are mentioned, we understand that there is usually something going on to do with ordering: placing something with respect to top or bottom, or occasionally left to right. Compartments care less about "right order" and more about separation. It doesn't matter so much where a compartment is with respect to other compartments, but only that their respective contents have nothing to do with one another.
Compartments are also different from bins, to take one other example.
Bins are entirely unconcerned with content separation. Moreover, they seem to possess a remarkable indifference as to what is put inside of them. Compartments have at least a basic respect toward their contents. Bins accept luggage and rubbish equivocally and with abandon. Bins feel sturdy and resilient, while compartments are almost delicate by comparison.
Compartments can be specific:
Secret compartments are perhaps the juiciest of all. The term "secret compartment" feels specific and general all at once.
If only we knew what was inside of them.
Usually what's inside, though, is less interesting than the secret compartment itself. Once discovered, both the compartment and its contents lose some of their appeal. We might as well not even look.
I'm still trying to feel comfortable with compartments. They seem to be all around me. I suspect I might be full of them, though, as with most things, I usually have no idea until it's too late.
I sat down to write a program note. I typed the name of each piece into a Safari tab. I stopped on the last tab when there were no more to open.
The first result was a recording of a passacaglia by a violinist I had gone to music camp with twenty years ago. I had followed the violinist's career on Facebook, noting with interest that they had become something of a Baroque music specialist.
I had never clicked on a single recording they had posted. Why? Was I envious? Uncaring? Probably neither, but I certainly didn't care enough to click.
Why, then, did I suddenly want to hear their passacaglia? Was it because I was finally independently interested in a piece that they had happened to record and the personal connection was enough to entice me?
Or was it reflective of a more general headspace when writing the program note?
Perhaps the interest in the passacaglia had nothing to do with an interest in their playing, but rather the interest in both their playing and the program note reflected a more open frame of mind (as opposed to the assumedly closed frame of mind I had been in when chancing upon their recordings previously).
Before we embark on the depressing thought spiral about Facebook and closed frames of mind, here's another question:
Why was I sitting down to write a program note on a piece I barely knew?
James Tate wrote, "God! This town is like a fairy tale. Everywhere you turn there's mystery and wonder. And I'm just a child playing cops and robbers." Perhaps our information age is something like a fairy tale filled with mystery and wonder. We can find anything we want online and style ourselves an expert, but isn't it all just a gingerbread house of ideas? Still, I can't see anyone ending up like Hansel and Gretel for engaging in plagiarism.
What interests me is that we have no word for the next best thing (to plagiarism). In other words, what does it really mean to try to cram information in a few hours only for the purpose of teaching it to other people? College professors, who hate plagiarism, engage in this kind of intellectual cram-work all the time when asked to jump in on a new course.
In their defense, are ideas any less valid when unbacked by deeper understanding? Perhaps the ideas become more valid in themselves because they're untarnished by subjectivity. Whatever change they undergo in transmission is unwitting, like a virus adapting to a new host. Perhaps, like a virus, these changes make the ideas more memorable, easier to replicate, more transmissible, more able to traverse the path of least resistance. What is lacking in depth is precisely makes the ideas more compelling.
Of course, like a virus, these sorts of ideas might still be terrible for us, but what about from the point of view of the idea?
Recently I sat down to put an arrangement together with a percussionist working from a limited instrumental setup. Someone handed them an Irish bodhrán, asking, "Can you play this thing."
They responded, "Wikihow."
There is a Calvino story that I love from his Complete Cosmicomics: The Form of Space. In it, the narrator falls freely through space alongside the object of his desire, Ursula H'x. Male gaze notwithstanding, Calvino is in top form, his tone both humorous and inventive, his gaze always more self-deprecating than it is gaze-y.
Calvino's Cosmicomics are metaphorically potent by design. They stand as scientific allegories. They are, moreover, extremely specific and clever. In this particular story, the characters fall in two parallel lines so that, although they observe each other, they will never touch. They also know that they will never touch, yet that does not prevent the various entanglements that play out. Re-reading it, I've tended to see it as a metaphor for how we seek agency in situations where we have no control, and how we exhaustively, irrepressibly construct narratives for ourselves in situations that make no sense.
I've been thinking a lot about control lately. Something I read recently struck me as apt. To paraphrase, "some people spend all their energy trying to swim upstream without realizing that the best we can do is to float downriver while trying to punt against the nearest rock." In Calvino's story, the characters are floating downriver without a rock. For myself, I've been thinking more about what vessel you're floating in. Are you seated on a raft? Are you clinging to a log? Or are you lucky enough to be in something with oars and a sail? To me the raft seems like the worst possible situation because it's bulky and unmaneuverable. Unless you're in white water.
But I'm struck by this idea of swimming vs. hanging on. When you swim, you can aim for a shore or a goal in the distance and alter your course so that it takes you there, despite being generally stuck in the flow. But if you're hanging on, it becomes very difficult to maneuver without a paddle, even if it feels good in the moment to be attached to something.
One of my favorite novels about classical music is a funny little book entitled "Ravel," by Jean Échenoz. Although focusing more on the biographical arc of Ravel's life, the novel contains an amateur musicological gem in its description of the Boléro:
"... there's a factory that Ravel currently likes to look at, on the Vésinet road, right after the bridge at Rueil. It gives him ideas. So there it is: he is busy composing something based on the assembly line.
Assembly and repetition: the composition is completed in October after a month of work hampered only by a splendid cold picked up on a trip through Spain, beneath the coconut palms of Malaga. He knows perfectly well what he has made: there's no form, strictly speaking, no development or modulation, just some rhythm and arrangement. In short it's a thing that self-destructs, a score without music, an orchestral factory without a purpose, a suicide whose weapon is the simple swelling of sound. Phrase run into the ground, thing without hope or promise: there he says, is at least one piece Sunday orchestras won't have the cheek to put on their programs. But none of that's important: the thing was only made to be danced. The choreography, the lighting, the scenery will be what carry off the tedious repetitions of that phrase…
Well, things don't go at all as planned. The first time it's danced, it's somewhat disconcerting but it works. Later on in the concert hall, however, is when it works terrifically. It works extraordinarily. This object without hope enjoys a triumph that stuns everyone, beginning with its creator. True, when an old lady in the audience complains loudly at the end of one of the first performances that he's a madman, Ravel nods: There's one of them at least who understands, he says, just to his brother. Eventually, this success will trouble him. That such a pessimistic project would meet with popular acclaim that is soon so universal and long-lasting that the piece becomes one of the world's warhorses -- well it's enough to make one wonder but -- above all -- to go straight to the point. To those bold enough to ask him what he considers his masterpiece, he shoots back: It's Boléro, what else; unfortunately, there's no music in it."
What I love about this passage is how it takes Ravel's harsh yet ultimately neutral remarks on Boléro -- that it was only ever intended as an experiment and contains no development, modulation, etc. -- and, rather than going in the familiar direction of sensationalized gossip (i.e. "Ravel hated Boléro"), Échenoz emphasizes the aspect of the work that might be seen as a deliberate, ironic, pessimistic joke. In doing so, Échenoz perhaps sensationalizes his own depiction of Ravel. Yet what is tremendous about the Échenoz is that it takes these two commonly opposed assessments -- on the one hand, Ravel's dismissive opinion of Boléro and, on the other hand, the public's undying adulation -- and unifies them, and not through that familiar elitist argument that the public could only possibly respond favorably to a substandard work. Rather, it is that the public, albeit subconsciously, understands the nihilism of Ravel's work all too well. Ravel makes a joke at the world's expense, and the world turns it back on him. His reaction is not one of condescension but rather fear at witnessing the world responding to this work in a way that seems horrific but ultimately true.